Get to Work or Else?

Most well-educated women have chosen to stay at home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. Now why would some people find that shameful?

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s
Tale
, set in a theocratic successor to the United States
called the “Republic of Gilead,” the principal victims of Gilead’s
totalitarianism are its women — in particular, their
aspirations and desires. They no longer have the freedom to
choose between motherhood and political or corporate
leadership. That choice has been made for them by elites and
ideologues who have determined that this kind of choice is
antithetical to the well-being of Gilead.

Since its publication in 1985, Atwood’s novel has been
made into a movie and even inspired an (often-unlistenable)
opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders. But it wasn’t until
recently that Atwood’s vision of women’s freedom being
sacrificed on the altar of a totalist ideology received serious
consideration. Only it’s not the real-life Commanders and
Serena Joys that are demanding the sacrifices, but those whom
Atwood would regard as her natural allies.

In the December 2005 issue of The American
Prospect
, Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis University
professor, lamented the fact that “half the wealthiest,
most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay
home with their babies rather than work in the market
economy.”

What set Hirshman’s piece apart from similar analyses of
women’s choices was her explicit subordination of the personal
— love, marriage and family — to the political. Her
principal, if not only, concern was assuring that women form an
appropriate part of the “ruling class.” For Hirshman, the true
“glass ceiling” wasn’t located at work but at home — it
was domesticity that kept these women from truly “flourishing,”
at least as Hirshman defines it.

Domesticity is why the “elites [who] supply the labor for the
decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper
editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the
policy-makers, and the policy wonks” will remain
“overwhelmingly male,” and “the rulers will make mistakes that
benefit males….”

Winter became Summer and Hirshman’s essay has become a
book — actually, more like a longer essay
— entitled, straightforwardly enough, Get to Work:
A Manifesto for Women of the World
, in which she more
fully articulates the “whys” and “hows” of that
subordination.

Hirshman’s principal quarrel is with what she calls “choice
feminism,” which holds that the goal of feminism isn’t so much
the promotion of certain political and social goals as it is
providing woman with the same right of
self-determination/definition as men. Bluntly stated, the
problem, according to Hirshman, with giving women these kind
of choices is that some — actually, too many —
women will make the wrong choice.

These “best-educated” women will, much like the
“coppertops” in The Matrix, choose in the mistaken
belief that they are free and, thus, perpetuate the status quo.
What’s needed — and what Get To Work sets
out to provide — is counsel that helps the
“most-privileged” and “best-educated” take the red pill and
assure women their rightful place among the flourishing “elites”
and “rulers.”

This counsel includes avoiding emulating Frida Kahlo (is it
me or is everybody picking on Mexicans these
days?), i.e., don’t major in politically useless stuff like Art or
English. Women should be aware of their “bargaining power
during courtship.” They should consider marrying younger or
“much older” men.

And, of course, there’s “reproductive blackmail.” A
“reproductive strike” may be necessary to combat “male
reneging” on the domestic front. In any case, by no means
should the “best-educated” women have a second child —
that is the express lane to dropping out of the work force.

The goal of all these strategies is to keep the
“best-educated” women from drawing “the short straw at the
dining room table,” i.e., being saddled with domestic obligations
that prevent them from doing what’s really important: assuming
their place among the “flourishing” “elites” and “rulers.”

Now that kind of deliberate subordination of the personal to
the political brings a particularly loaded adjective to mind and,
fortunately, I can quote someone else’s use of it: Cathy Young, a
Boston Globe and Reason columnist, characterized
Hirshman’s “proposal” as “totalitarian.” Feminism, Young wrote,
“has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their
personal lives, as Hirshman wants.” (Lest you think that this is
merely rhetorical excess on Young’s part, you should know that
Young, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, knows
totalitarianism when she sees it.)

Just as troubling as Hirshman’s disdain for family life and
the personal choices of countless women is the narrowness of
her focus. Notwithstanding the subtitle of her book, she’s really
writing about the lives of a tiny percentage of American (never
mind that “world” stuff) women. Even if you define
“best-educated” to include any school ranked in the top tier of
U.S. News & World Report‘s “National Universities”
or “Liberal Arts Colleges,” you are still excluding the vast
majority of American women.

What’s more, even within this already small group, the
women who matter most to Hirshman are a relatively tiny
minority: by definition, very few of the “best-educated” of any
group — men, women, Bajorans, Cardassians —
form the “elite” and “rulers.” For the rest, work is, well, work.
They may love it or hate it; they may find it a source of personal
fulfillment or a soul-deadening ordeal; or, like most of us, they
may find it to be something in-between. What they won’t find it
to be is a path to “Master (or Mistress) of the Universe”
status.

(Ironically, graduation from a top-tier university is a not
pre-requisite to this status: As Greg Easterbrook pointed out in
the October 2004 Atlantic Monthly, most members
the U.S. Senate and Fortune 500 CEOs, two groups that must be
included among any reasonable definition of the “elites” and
“rulers,” did not attend elite universities. Hirshman’s intended
audience may not be giving up as much as she thinks they are.)

Then, of course, there’s the rest of women for whom work is
a means to pay the bills and/or provide for their families. These
women, to the extent they figure in Hirshman’s mental universe,
must be content with her vague assurances that this counsel
prompted by the plight of the “best-educated” and
“most-privileged” women has something to do with their lives
and will redound to their benefit.

If there’s a better example of the liberal (and, as I’ve noted
previously in Boundless, I regard myself as one)
abandonment of the working class, I’m not aware of it. These
women are being asked — actually, told is
the correct word — to disregard their desires and
aspirations to make the world better for the (extreme apologies
to W.E.B. Dubois) “talented” one millionth.

If the vast majority of women play a subordinate role in
Hirshman’s account, men, apart from a cameo appearance as
drawers of the long straw at the dinner table, play none at all.
Plainly stated, Hirshman is clueless about why men work.
Reading Get to Work, it’s reasonable to infer, as
Meghan O’Rourke of Slate does in her review of
Hirshman’s book, that men work as part of some broader social
strategy: because they are taught that “your responsibility to
society — the way to become an adult — is to
work.”

Oh, please! Guys work for motives that range from the
noble to the basest of the base but these reasons are all
personal. They work because they find it fulfilling
and stimulating; they work because their parents have
repeatedly told them that they’re “good to go.” They work to
take care of their families; they work to earn money to buy
themselves toys like 1080p HDTVs and Porsche Boxters. They
work to secure their kids’ future; and, of course, they work to
earn the money it takes to impress women. More than a few of
us work to prove that every teacher, guidance counselor, parent
and girl who dumped us was wrong when they said that we
would never amount to anything. Just about the only reason we
don’t work is to uphold some social arrangement.

In the real world, women got to work (or not) for reasons
that are every bit as personal and varied as men’s. Like Atwood’s
theocrats, Hirshman would replace these personal reasons with
one approved idea of where women can flourish. Fortunately,
her counsel is likely to appeal as much to the women of the real
world as Ruder’s music appeals to my ears.

Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Roberto Rivera y Carlo writes from his home in Alexandria, Va.

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